Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Saint of the Month: John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe
The Trial of Wyclif by Ford Maddox Brown, the 360th ranked artist of all time.

AKA: Wyclif, Wycliff, Wiclef, Wicliffe, Wickliffe.  He lived before people were too stressed about orthography.
Feast Day: October 30 in North America; December 31 in other Anglican communities.

Really Existed? Sure.  Dude hung out with John of Gaunt.
Timeframe: from the late 1320s to 1384.
Place: England. 

Credentials: Honored as a saint in the Anglican Churches.
Martyrdom: Posthumous only.

Patron Saint of: I don't think Anglican saints have portfolios of patronage.
Symbolism: I don't think they have symbolism, either.

Today is the feast day of John Wycliffe according to the litergical calendar of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the United States. In the Church of England and the Episcopal churches of Australia and Brazil, he's honored on New Year's Eve. In Catholicism, for reasons that will become apparent, he's not venerated at all. But that's OK. The concept of sainthood isn't confined to Catholicism, and the Michael5000 Calendar of the Saints is nothing if not ecumenical.  Mind you, an Anglican wouldn't generally pray to a saint and ask them to advocate on their behalf to God, unless they were at the tippy-top of the very most lofty pinnacle of the High Church.  For your average Anglican, a saint is simply a person worthy of respect and contemplation because of their good deeds or character.

If you have a good grounding in British history or traditional Western Civ, the name of John Wycliffe will be at least a little familiar. Within the English-speaking world, he was probably the most important of the religious dissidents of the Middle Ages. As a priest, theologian, and professor of religion at Oxford, he was openly critical of the wealth, worldliness, and ostentation of the clergy. I've read that he was an early forerunner of Protestantism, and I've also read that the ideas of 14th century guys like Wycliffe had nothing to do with Protestantism, and it's a big anachronistic mistake to confuse the two. So yeah, basically he was an early forerunner of Protestantism.

Famously, he oversaw a translation of the Bible into English, and this sounds like a big deal -- the sacred text of Christianity, now available to the common folk! Except, when you think about it, almost none of the common folk could read. Those that could, could usually read in Latin as well as they could in English.  (Nor was this, contrary to what I imagined, the first translation of the Bible into English; turns out there were several already around.)  I suspect that what Wycliffe and his team wanted to do was have Bibles handy that could be read out loud to the common folks who didn't understand Latin.  If I'm right, it almost more of a CD than it was a book, although I may be losing control of my metaphor a bit at this point.

In addition to his belief that the Bible should be available in local languages, Wycliffe believed in predestination and the separation of church and state. This, and his belief that the church should be divested of all its property so that the clergy could be spiritually enriched by poverty, did not universally endear him to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. He likely survived mostly because he was under the protection of some powerful secular leaders, including John of Gaunt, one of the best-connected power brokers in history and the guy who pretty much ran England in the late fourteenth century. Wycliffe's notion that the Church should hand over all of its property to the state -- you can see where this line of thinking would have some appeal to Gaunt.

After he turned fifty, Wycliffe seemed to stop caring much what folks thought of him (it happens!) and began going beyond criticism of clerical excesses. He came out against popular lay practices like the use of holy images and the veneration of saints, and then began to attack even closer-to-the-bone aspects of religious practice like the notion of transubstantiation, the need for the sacraments, and the existence of the Papacy. This was radical stuff indeed.  Although some folks found it thrilling -- enthusiastic followers of the radical Lollard movement that it inspired would be persecuted and executed horribly for generations to come -- the high-placed supporters that had protected Wycliffe began to find him a little too hot to handle.

Remarkably, however, Wycliffe managed to keep out of harm's way for long enough that he could drop dead of a stroke at the end of 1384. Eventually, his books would be burned; indeed, eventually he himself would be posthumously excommunicated, declared a heretic, dug up, and ceremonially put to the flames. The way I see it, though, if you're going to be burned as a heretic, having it happen a few decades after you die takes a lot of the sting out of the experience.

But where are my manners? John Wycliffe was opposed to the veneration of saints, and here I am going on about him in the context of his sainthood. We'll respect the man's sensibility by keeping it brief, and I'll wish you a happy day of his feast. If you like, you can do like John and meditate on the virtues of dissent and reform.

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